John Laslett (far left) is a research professor of history and author of "Sunshine Was Never Enough: Los Angeles Workers, 1880-2010."
Chris Tilly is a professor of urban planning and director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA and editor of the book "Are Bad Jobs Inevitable?: Trends, Determinants and Responses to Job Quality in the Twenty-First Century."
The L.A. Natural History Museum's new permanent exhibit, "Becoming Los Angeles," offers a kaleidoscopic look at the people and places of the Los Angeles region, focusing on the last two centuries when the city leapt from sleepy Mexican settlement to global metropolis. At a political moment when immigration reform is stalling, three photographs within that kaleidoscopic mix offer an important window into how workers — and Latino immigrant workers in particular —helped Los Angeles become the L.A. of today.
The photos of early 20th-century Mexican radical Ricardo Flores Magón, 1930s union organizer Rose Pesotta, and 2000s janitors' union activists all capture moments in a recurrent thread in L.A. history. Earlier, the city held a reputation as the home of the fiercely anti-union "open shop." But over and over again, Mexican and other immigrant workers have sparked labor insurgencies in which workers have found their voices and campaigned for dignity and a living wage in some of the worst jobs in the city.
Flores Magón, who spent much of 1907-18 in Los Angeles, preached — and practiced — revolution. His aims included both revolution in Mexico, as part of the movement that overthrew dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1910, and workers' revolution, through "one big union" of all workers across borders. Though Flores Magón was nominally the leader of the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM), in practice that party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a U.S.-based radical labor organization, overlapped extensively in the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico. The PLM/IWW in Southern California was unable to organize massive strikes like IWW affiliates in the western mines or northeastern textile mills. But the organization defended basic worker rights and projected an inclusive vision of "labor," in stark contrast with the dominant American Federation of Labor, which limited its ranks to skilled, white, male, mainly native workers. Flores Magón and a network of other Mexican and Mexican-American organizers were key contributors to this inclusive vision and effort.
Pesotta, a migrant from Ukraine, organized workers for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILG) from the 1910s to the 1940s. In Los Angeles, the European-American leaders of the ILG were convinced that the Mexican seamstresses who ran the sewing machines were "unorganizable." Pesotta proved them wrong in the 1933 L.A. Garment Workers strike. Thousands of sewing machine operators went on strike to protest sweatshop conditions. More than 3,000 joined picket lines in the garment district on the first day of the strike. They won a minimum wage and a 35-hour week, foreshadowing the nationwide wave of massive strikes and organizing drives in the later 1930s that did much to build the American middle class in the middle of the 20th century.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, labor in Los Angeles was once more at a low ebb. The economy had shifted to services and entertainment, and many of those jobs had been downgraded, leading to an exodus of native workers from the industry and an influx of immigrants from all over the world, but particularly from Mexico and Central America. Many once more tagged these immigrants as "unorganizable." This time, unions like the Service Employees International Union (who organized janitors) and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (who organized hotel workers) recognized immigrant workers' potential. A new generation of activists mobilized organizations like the National Day Labor Organizing Network and the Koreatown Immigrant Worker Association. Labor campaigns like Justice for Janitors, Hotel Workers Rising and the CLEAN Car Wash Campaign helped — and continue to help — to turn insecure, marginal jobs into a pathway into the middle class.
Those three pictures at an exhibition remind us of two important lessons. First, labor organizations have been critical forces in pushing for an inclusive society and in assuring basic workplace standards and a shot at upward mobility. Second, immigrant workers in Los Angeles, especially those from Mexico and Latin America, have repeatedly revitalized labor and brought ideas and energy that helped move our society forward. When it comes to "becoming L.A.," it's hard to think of any more important contributors to what's positive about Los Angeles today.